PALO PINTO COUNTY, Texas — Top state oil and gas officials have said it repeatedly: There is no credible link between fracking and groundwater contamination.
Yet a WFAA investigation reveals the state's own records reflecting a significant concern about a water well explosion in Palo Pinto County last year.
And now, a neighboring water well is so contaminated with fracking related chemicals that the state says it poses a potential explosive threat.
But what is the state doing about it?
That's what Richard and Stella Singleton would like to know. They have lived and raised a family on their Palo Pinto County ranch for 24 years. Like many rural Texans, they rely on water from their well for bathing, cooking, and for their animals to drink.
But all of that changed, they say, after Fairway Resources fracked an oil and gas well just a few hundred yards from their house in the summer of 2013.
By December of that year, the Singletons said their well water started to smell like rotten eggs. Fumes filled their home.
Then their water began to burn their skin.
State inspectors came out to run tests. WFAA obtained documents related to the investigation through the Texas Public Information Act. Not only did those tests find excessive levels of methane in their water, but also but chlorides and the cancer-causing chemical benzene.
Oil and gas regulators with the Texas Railroad Commission issued a report saying the Singletons' well water contained chemicals that may pose "adverse health effects" and an "explosion hazard."
The state's solution? "Vent your water well" and consider "installing a well water aeration system," documents show.
The state suggested the contamination could be due to a "natural occurrence in the groundwater." There were no baseline water tests to prove the chemicals did not already exist.
But in May of last year, Stella Singleton e-mailed state officials that "the well behind our house has now had a pump jack placed on it." The next day, she wrote, "when we started using our water, it turned completely brown. It still has the odor, but now it is full of dirt."
Three months later, another more serious event occurred involving a neighbor just a few hundred yards away. Cody Murray's water well house filled with methane and exploded, severely burning him, his father and daughter. All three survived, but the wells of both families were ruined.
Now the Singletons and Murrays are suing the two companies who drilled the nearby oil and gas wells.
"These incredibly unnatural events, from methane spewing out of a shower, to methane exploding in a fireball from a water well, don't match 'naturally occurring,'" said Christopher Hamilton, a lawyer representing both families. "What they do match are the known risks associated with fracking and gas drilling."
And while not conclusive, a published study by a group of University of Texas at Arlington scientists infers a link between water well contamination and fracking in the Barnett Shale, one of the largest and most productive natural gas fields in the United States.
UTA scientists tested water samples throughout the Barnett Shale. Earlier this year, they released their findings, which they say showed elevated levels of 19 different chemical compounds including benzene, toluene and xylene.
"Based on these results, something has gone horribly wrong here," said Dr. Zacariah L. Hildenbrand, one of the UTA-affiliated scientists, reviewing the Singleton family water well data.
He said the pollution in their well is similar to that found in Steve Lipsky's water well in nearby Parker County. Lipsky's well water — which was so filled with methane that he could light it on fire — has been featured in numerous WFAA stories detailing links between his and his neighbors' polluted wells, and nearby oil and gas production.
Dr. Hildenbrand said while methane concentrations in the Singleton well in Palo Pino are not as extreme as those in Lipsky's well, test results indicate the danger is real.
"The data we see in this report is strikingly similar to what we see in this region where the water is on fire," Dr. Hildenbrand said. "You have high levels of dissolved gases, you have thermogenic gas. You have volatile organic carbons, mainly BTEX species. You have high levels of benzene, above drinking water standards."
Confusing to Dr. Hildenbrand and the Singletons and the Murrays is — despite the test results the contamination and even a near-fatal explosion — there has been no attempt by state officials to suspend operations of the nearby oil and gas wells until a cause can be determined.
"For [the Railroad Commission] to say the data is 'inconclusive,' and for them to just throw up their hands is really irresponsible, because the data here is very compelling," Hildenbrand said.
Texas Railroad Commissioners have repeatedly declined our requests for an interview. They say their investigation into both cases of contamination continues.
The two drilling companies being sued — Fairway Resources and EOG Resources — have also declined to comment.
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